One of the key drivers for deep change, is when we are able to break out of the limiting stories that we tell ourselves. Transformation happens when we rewrite those stories as narratives of opportunity rather than of limitation.
The Story of Lack
One of the most prevalent limiting stories is what I call the Story of Lack. The story is essentially an ongoing mind-set around which we have woven a narrative, that tells us and the world that we are not enough, and we do not have enough. Just to be clear, the Story of Lack is not the same as REAL lack. Sadly we live in a world where very real and painful lack is an all too common experience. Millions of people every day, through circumstances wholly beyond their control, do not have enough food, shelter or other essentials. This is not just a mind-set with a story woven around it; it is a real experience of deprivation.
1. Buying Into The Story
Sometimes we experience limitations in our lives. In an effort to explain those limitations to ourselves, we conclude that there is something lacking in ourselves or in our resources. We convince ourselves that the circumstances of our lives that gave rise to these experiences are beyond our control. Before we know it, we have bought into a story that tells us, “I can’t do … because I don’t have enough …” or, “I can’t do … because I’m not … enough.”
We could fill in the blank with any number of things.
- I don’t have enough money.
- I’m not clever enough.
- I don’t have enough time.
- I’m not good looking enough.
- I don’t have enough luck.
- I’m not determined enough.
The list is potentially endless. The point is that once we have bought into this first part of the story, the next part becomes almost inevitable.
2. Anxiety Response
When we experience lack, it triggers anxiety, in one of its many guises. Anxiety is the poor relation of fear. Fear is hard wired into us as a survival mechanism. It is like an alarm that goes off in our bodies in response to a perceived threat. Make no mistake about it, lack can very definitely be experienced as a threat.
At a purely physical level, if we don’t have enough food, shelter, warmth etc. we might get sick, or maybe we get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. At a physical level lack can be life-threatening. As well as physical needs, we also have core emotional needs, especially as we are growing up – for example the need to feel loved, nurtured and affirmed. If those things aren’t present, they can be almost as damaging to our emotional selves as physical lack is to our physical selves. Whenever we face physical or core emotional lack, fear is the alarm-bell that tells us we have to DO SOMETHING to deal with the threat.
Unfortunately, that sense of physical and emotional lack also transfers itself onto other important but less obviously crucial needs. These are needs to do with our sense of self-esteem, our social connectedness, our values, our aspirations etc. Lack in these areas, if we buy into the story, provokes a muted version of the same sort of response as lack in our core physical and emotional needs. This low-level fear or anxiety is still more than enough to have a profound impact on our lives.
3. Control Strategies
The Anxiety Response often leads us to create Control Strategies. These strategies take many forms; some are very obvious, though others are more subtle. All of them, however, are essentially trying to achieve the same thing. Rather than facing and dealing with the discomfort of lack we try to change our emotional state to something that feels more pleasant, or at least less threatening.
Every Control Strategy consists of one or more of three elements (often all three). These are:
Some of the control strategies attempt directly to make changes to our emotional state, through use of self-soothing or self-stimulating activities such as taking drugs, alcohol, foods, exercise, risk-taking activities etc.
Other control strategies involve avoidance of discomfort, through triggering the flight response. It is worth recognising that the ‘flight’ can cover a wide range of behaviours, including: excessive sleep, emotional numbing, relational distancing, depression, outbursts of anger. More subtly we may develop limiting beliefs that avoid the need to engage with the source of discomfort. Another subtle form of avoidance is what I call the Failing Fix – a misconceived or half-hearted attempt to resolve the lack, which allows us to say, “Well I tried … and it didn’t work.”
Still other strategies attempt to manipulate others into providing a change of state for us. In some contexts we could view panic attacks, depression, outbursts of anger, regressive behaviour etc. as attempts to manipulate others into providing the soothing or stimulation that we believe will change our emotional state.
The problem with all of these control strategies is that none of them address the root of the issue, which is the perception of lack that has given rise to anxiety in the first place. Sooner or later we will inevitably come face to face with that perceived lack and the associated anxiety once again. However, we do so with a history of failed Control Strategy. This in turn feeds into the narrative of lack, and only serves to increase the level of anxiety we feel in response to that lack.
A Personal Example (part 1)
Let me give you an example of how this works, from my own experience.
I love to write. In fact I have always dreamed of being an author. However, my hard-drive is littered with incomplete novels and non-fiction works. The reason they never got completed was because I found it difficult to find the time to commit to them on a regular basis. There were also quite a few blogs I set up and began to contribute to, only to have them fall silent, because I couldn’t find the time to write regularly.
The thing many best-selling authors seem to have in common is that they find time to write regularly, usually for at least two hours a day. The problem is that my life was (and is) very full, so though there were days when I could find several hours to write, there were more days when finding half an hour or even twenty minutes was probably as good as it got. As a result I began to tell myself a very limiting Story of Lack.
“I can’t be a proper author, let alone a best-selling one, because I don’t have enough time.”
This set up a powerful conflict in me. The urge to write was as strong as ever, but now I had the sense that I was bound to fail, which produced an uncomfortable level of anxiety. Now of course the Anxiety Response wasn’t about anything actually life-threatening, so it was quite low level, but was still uncomfortable enough that I had to DO SOMETHING!
The pressure to DO SOMETHING meant I created a Control Strategy of denial to help me override the anxiety. I denied that whatever it was I was writing at that moment was of any importance. I denied that it was any good. I denied that writing was supposed to be a big part of my work. The result of all that denial was that I stopped writing and everything felt better. What a relief!
The problem was that the relief never lasted, because, my dreams and aspirations about writing remained so strong. After a few weeks or months I convinced myself to deny my denial, and began trying to write again. But I still lacked the time to dedicate hours every day to it, and the whole cycle began all over again … and again ….
Breaking the Cycle
One of the difficulties when we try to change any limiting or inhibiting story, is that we often try to change it at the wrong point. With the Cycle of Lack, we often try to change the last part – the Control Strategy. The problem is that the Control Strategy is rooted in the Anxiety Response, and as long as that remains in place the very best we are going to be able to do, is to change which Control Strategy is used.
Most coaches know this of course. In terms of a well-known change model it is trying to change behaviour without changing mind-set. For this reason, most coaches tend to focus their efforts on trying to shift the mind-set, in this case the Anxiety Response that gives rise to the Control Strategy. They will use whatever techniques they have in their armoury – visualisation, breathing exercises, posture adjustment, mindfulness, affirmations etc. to help their client change the Anxiety Response and hopefully be able to choose new strategies. This is all good and helpful. I use these techniques myself, and they are an important part of helping my clients to overcome the habit of Anxiety. However, it does nothing to change the Story of Lack, and so this powerful meta-narrative continues to operate. As a result the Anxiety Response is only overridden or evaded, not removed. In fact what we’ve done is replace the client’s Control Strategies, with our own coaching Control Strategies.
Changing the Story
In the coaching framework that I have developed – the Transformation Journey, we approach things slightly differently. We begin by challenging the story itself, rather than the Anxiety Response. There are lots of methods we can use to challenge any limiting story, but I tend to find simple works best; so often I begin by just asking a ‘what if’ question.
“What if, the lack you perceive is actually an opportunity to create abundance?”
It’s a bit of a shocker for some people. We are taught to see lack as the opposite of abundance, but what if instead of being the opposite, it’s actually the opportunity?
Remember, I am NOT talking about people living in circumstances that are genuinely beyond their control. If someone is starving as a result of a famine in Africa, their experience of lack is real and not just a story. The circumstances are beyond their control, and they have precious few opportunities for abundance.
However, even then, there can be opportunities for abundance in the circumstances of those trying to help in a desperate situation. When you have a moment, read the story of Bob Geldof and how he overcame a mind-set of helplessness and lack in order to launch Live Aid, and raised hundreds of millions for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Now I don’t want to be unreal here. Just asking a question, no matter how good, isn’t going to bring about instant change. Answering it requires clients to connect with themselves at a deep level, and I have a whole set of methods that I use to facilitate my clients in making that deep connection. Nevertheless, this question, if we fully engage with it, can trigger a profound process of change.
A Personal Example (part 2)
Let me carry on the story I began earlier.
I remained stuck in this limiting, self-defeating cycle for years, even decades. Then one day, provoked by some things I was reading; I began to question, not my denial, or my anxiety, but the Story of Lack itself.
What if the lack of time is actually an opportunity to create abundance? What if it is an invitation to think about how I use time in a different way? What if all that wise advice from established authors that I have to give at least two hours a day to writing, is not actually the only way to do it? Could it be that the way I’m wired means I can structure my time for writing in a way that suits my unique strengths?
I began to ask myself a couple more questions.
Can I find at least some time every day to write, even if it’s only a few minutes? The answer of course is yes. I can look at social media a bit less, or put off a couple of non-essential emails till the following day.
Is writing for a few minutes better or worse than not writing at all? The more I thought about it, the more I had to admit it couldn’t work any worse than what I had been doing up to date. I decided to see what would happen if I made an agreement with myself.
Every day, I write something. I don’t worry about sticking to one project, I work on whatever is inspiring and motivating me today. Sometimes I can only give it 15 minutes, in which case I may limit myself to jotting down some notes or ideas. Other times I can give it 20 or 30 minutes – this article was written in several half hour bursts. Occasionally, I have the luxury of several hours free to write.
The result is clear. Averaged out over several months, I am writing far more words by writing what I can, when I can every day, than I ever was able to by trying to write at least two hours a day, and then giving up in frustration. My writing projects are moving forward. Articles are being finished. Ideas for new projects are flowing freely. In fact I’ve realised that if I write 20 or 30 blog articles the length of this one (or 40 that are a bit shorter) on roughly similar themes, effectively I have the first draft of a book.
The Anxiety Response is gone. The Control Strategy is not needed. In short my Story of Lack, has been transformed into a Story of Abundance.
This story was focused on creativity, but it could just as easily have been about money, skill, resources, knowledge, opportunity etc. What areas of your life and work have been caught up in a Story of Lack? How could you turn those stories to ones of abundance?
I would love to hear your experiences and stories of turning lack into abundance, so please feel free to share them, as well as any feedback, in the comments section.